by Brenda Carey
As vegans, one of the animal products that we abstain from is honey. Many people question this and wonder why. There is a prevailing belief in society that harvesting honey is a harmless process. As my mother used to say, “I don’t think the bees mind.” But I used to respond to that, “Then why do the beekeepers have to wear all that protective gear?” It just seemed logical that if a creature spends all day long making honey that they would not want a third party to come and take it away from them. They must have a use for it. And whenever someone forcibly takes the honey, there will be damage to the bees, their hive and their future sustainability.
A few years ago I lived down the street from a small beekeeper. He had a few hives and bottled the honey himself and brought it to the local farmer’s market. Other people in the community felt great about purchasing honey from him. It was local, natural, organic, and a health food! But I used to watch my neighbor use a shop-vac to suck the bees off of the hive as he harvested his honey, killing most of them in the process. It made me sad and I told my neighbors what I had witnessed in the hopes that collectively we could do something about it. But the other neighbors, while horrified at first, seemed to prefer to ignore what I had told them and enjoy their honey in denial. I have also had other people tell me that they think that what I witnessed must not be the industry standard. It reminds me very much of the public’s reaction to hearing about factory farming of other animals.
To learn more about this subject, and be sure that what I witnessed was not just a fluke, I wanted to research it further for myself. Here’s what I found.
I started with a TED talk with Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota. She said that honey-bees have thrived for 50 million years, each colony having 40 to 50,000 individuals coordinated in amazing harmony. Seven years ago colonies started dying en masse. We now have half the number of bees that we had in 1945.
Her explanation for their demise included monoculture crop planting, which makes a lot of sense. I have researched the issue of veganic agriculture for past articles (where crops are grown without the use of manure or other slaughter-house waste and are completely vegan). Veganic farmers plant clover and alfalfa as a cover crop on fields every other season, so that nutrients are added to the soil. This benefits bees also (bees love clover). When farmers keep the same crops growing over large areas of land, season after season, the soil becomes depleted and they seek to replace nutrients with chemical fertilizers and manure. This does nothing to help the bees.
Another problem with monocrops is that bees must be trucked in and out of orchards for pollination, because after spring is over, there are no flowers in the area. In nature, different flowers bloom at different times throughout the year so that bees almost always have something from which to extract nectar. When they are trucked in and out, there are casualties of the process. Vibrations from trucks and the upset of moving the hives are unnatural things for bees to endure and many do not survive.
Then there are pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These all injure and kill bees. So the solution recommended for folks who care is to plant bee-friendly flowers that bloom all year and don’t use chemicals on those plants. This sounds great, but the question of harvesting honey as causing harm to bees was never addressed.
So I looked for a source with less of an inclination toward avoiding controversy to find deeper truth. I found an article called “Bees Deserve Respect! Inside the Unsustainable World of Commercial Beekeeping” by Orietta C. Estrada.
Orietta did not disappoint as she explained that migratory beekeepers are commercial operations that chase money around the country by visiting orchard after orchard during flowering seasons. They haul thousands of hives across thousands of miles, for days at a time and make a lot of money doing so.
She also explained that commercial beekeepers “rob” colonies of honey and replace it with a substance of lesser quality (so the bees do not starve to death). They use sugar water laced with antibiotics and other additives. This hardly seems fair considering that it takes a bee the equivalent of three trips around the world to produce one jar of honey.
Another problem with commercial beekeepers who migrate bees all over the country is that disease is being spread among colonies. The diets of sugar water and chemicals are nutritionally insufficient and the bees are being exposed to a whole range of pesticides that affect them negatively in both the short and long-term.
If you are not alarmed by this yet, you should know that in China, there are places that have been so overworked by chemical pesticides that bees don’t exist. The result: migrant workers must travel around the country to hand pollinate flowers. There are videos online of people climbing up into trees, shaking them and tickling them with devices to move the pollen from one tree to another.
If you visit the website Beekeeping.com, you will learn that interest in bees started with the hunting and “robbing” of wild colonies in hollow cavities in trees or rocks. Until the refining of sugar cane was developed in the 19th century, honey was the only sweetening agent widely available. It was prized not only as food, but for its uses in folk medicine.
“Bee-killing,” or “honey hunting,” is a traditional activity in many regions of Africa and Asia. “Bee-killing” is the killing of the bees in a colony so that the combs containing honey and brood (larval and pupal stages) can be taken. Left without honey stores or brood, any surviving bees are doomed. Honey hunters usually regret having to kill the colony, but they know of no other way to obtain honey or wax.
Wild bee colonies are common in many regions of the world, and the gathering of honey from these colonies often occurs when trees containing bee colonies are felled during the clearing of forest and bush for other reasons. Honey hunters or gatherers usually use fire to kill the bees. They are thought to be responsible for many bush fires in some areas.
Another website with great information is the Amateur Entomologists’ Society (amentsoc.org). They explain that the main problem honey gatherers faced in the past was trying to “steal” the honey from hives without getting stung too badly. People would usually kill the colony with poison before smashing the hive open, but this meant the queen died too, so every year the number of beehives decreased.
If you think that this violent behavior is a thing of the past or is something that people in other countries do, consider that it is a fact that bees have a violent defensive reaction when their hives are broken into. This is why beekeepers wear a protective suit and a veil to protect their faces and necks. The suits worn by beekeepers are usually lightly coloured and made of a smooth material, which stops the bees from mistaking them for dark and furry predators like bears. Beekeepers also use smoke to make the bees less likely to sting. The smoke works in two ways. First, it masks the pheromones (scents) released by the guard bees to alert the rest of the hive to a break in. Second, the smoke tricks the bees into thinking that the hive is on fire. This is especially unfortunate as the bees begin eating the stored honey so it isn’t wasted when they have to leave their burning home.
Even if you don’t care about the pain and suffering of the bees, money-lovers should be aware that honeybees are very important to our economy because of all the food they pollinate. Pollination from bees is responsible for 80% of all our fruit, nuts and vegetables. A single hive of 50,000 honeybees can pollinate half a million plants in just one day!
In case you are feeling sad about giving up the sweet, delicious taste of honey for the sake of the bees and the planet, you should be aware that there are some amazing alternatives available. My favorite is the wonderfully named “Bee Free Honee.” The ladies behind this product have created Bee Free Honee for the sake of the bees. It works in equal proportions to traditional honey in cooking and in baking. It tastes, acts, and feels like traditional honey. It is shelf stable with a long life. Bee Free Honee is also owned and operated by women with an ideological basis for their business. (www.beefreehonee.com)
What the Bee Free Honee ladies tell people concerned with the pollinator situation is this: if you are using honey in a recipe, why not use an alternative that will offer the same result? Why not save that precious honey for the bees? When people say they want to support bees by purchasing traditional honey, these ladies politely ask: “How does creating more demand help them?” Does it not just push the industry to make them work the bees harder?” The Bee Free Honee ladies point out that we need to ask bee keepers to stop feeding bees sugar water and corn syrup during the winter months. Bees make more than what they need, not for us, but for their own needs. They prepare for the future. As the Bee Free Honee ladies say, we need to bring bees back to their natural life cycle. We need to protect them as we do any other species in decline. We need to allow bees to regain strength in body and in numbers. We cannot do this by creating more demand for their